For the past year, Sarah Siemens of Fresno had been searching for a way to honor her mother, who died of skin cancer.
She needed to document her grief, and she wanted to educate people about sun safety.
Earlier this month, she completed her project: A video that culminates in an explosion of an indoor tanning bed her mother had used at a health club in Lemoore.
“I wanted a eulogy for my mom and something good to come from her death,” said Siemens, who turns 27 this week.
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Her mother, Mary Rhoads, was 48 when she died of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, on May 8, 2014. The cancer started at a mole she’d had her entire life on her lower back.
Siemens, who works at a travel management company, said she’s spent the past year educating herself about skin cancer, and one thing she’s learned: Skin cancer is largely preventable. “Ninety percent of skin cancers are caused by (ultraviolet radiation) UV exposures,” she said.
Mary Rhoads, a Lemoore preschool teacher, was outside in the sun a lot. She was a farmer’s wife, and had a backyard garden. She also was a swim instructor. But she liked a bronzed, tanned body and used indoor tanning to maintain it. The tanning bed she often climbed inside was at the Body Shop Health Club in Lemoore.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies have shown that indoor tanning increases a person’s risk of getting skin cancer, including melanoma.
In 2012, the federal Food and Drug Administration classified tanning devices from class I, a low to moderate risk, to class II, a moderate to high risk device. And eleven states, including California, now prohibit indoor tanning for minors younger than age 18.
The more Siemens educated herself about skin cancer, the more upset she became.
“I just woke up one morning and was really bothered by the fact the tanning bed my mom had used and so many others had used was in a health club,” she said. “It was just about as healthy as having a cigarette bar in a health club.”
Siemens sat down and wrote a letter to Mike Roper, owner of Body Shop Health Club in Lemoore. She explained her mother’s death and asked him to remove the tanning bed.
Mike Roper said he was sympathetic. Mary Rhoads had been a longtime customer and he liked her.
Even before her death, Roper said he had been considering getting rid of the tanning bed, but it was a revenue-generating part of the health club, which he and his wife, Colleen, had bought in August 2013.
Indoor tanning in health clubs is “kind of an old school way of thinking,” he said. “Back in the day, it made sense. You kind of associated it with a fit, tanned, toned body.”
But there was no question the tanning bed had to go after Rhoads’ death, he said. “I did not want it around.”
It came down to the need to sell the bed so he could replace it with equipment that could make up for the lost revenue from tanning. He advertised the bed on Craigslist for $6,500 to $7,000. Only one person inquired. He lowered the price.
Siemens told Roper she wanted to buy the tanning bed. He wanted to give it to her, Roper said, but he needed some compensation. He lowered the price to $2,500.
Siemens said she holds no ill will toward Roper. If she still lived in Lemoore, she’d belong to his health club.
Family and friends offered to help buy the tanning bed and Siemens set up a fundraising page on the Internet. She paid for the tanning bed at the end of September.
In early October, close to her mom’s 49th birthday, she blew the bed up at a friend’s farm in Lemoore.
The explosion was videotaped. Friends at Agape Creative Studios helped Siemens incorporate it in a video of sun safety messages, but interspersed with family scenes, including ones of a young Siemens and Rhoads on a beach.
The video created what she wanted, she said. “I felt it would be honoring to her to educate myself and others about how we can promote sun safety.”
Her mother’s death from melanoma “changed all of us,” Siemens said of herself, father and younger brother. “We all wear sunscreen every single day”
And since she began her mission to educate people about sun safety a year ago, friends now protect themselves, she said. “Even people are saying, ‘I don’t tan anymore.’”